Astro Boy: The Video Game for the PSP is based on the recently released film of a similar name, "Astro Boy: The Movie." In turn, all of this is based on the original manga/anime from famed creator Osamu Tezuka. The manga and anime are some of the oldest in that specific genre, with the manga starting to be serialized in 1952, and the anime being first broadcast in Japan in 1963. At its heart, it's a Pinocchio-style tale about a scientist who loses his son to a tragic accident and re-creates that boy in robot form. There have been a few variations on the tale over the years, as the series has been made and remade multiple times.
The most current iteration, which is shown in the film, adheres to the ideas of the original but fleshes it out into a full-length, feature film. The guys behind the film animation, which is all CGI, are the same crew that was responsible for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles revival in 2007, which was also a CGI film. Astro Boy mostly sticks to the plot of the film, but it's a shame that the gameplay doesn't pack enough of a punch to support the story, resulting in a pretty bland game and some pretty awful design. It's tough to get some fun out of this licensed title, and I was hoping for something more akin to the fantastic Astro Boy: Omega Factor, which appeared on the Game Boy Advance in 2004.
Astro Boy was designed by the developers at High Voltage Software, the crew behind The Conduit, a recent Wii shooter that has received quite a bit of press due to its solid multiplayer component and fully fleshed-out control options. It's hard to say that the same amount of time and thought went into this release, and I have a strong suspicion that Astro Boy was more of a cash-in title that would generate money for their original IPs. It's not unheard of; the recently dissolved company Grin did this (or attempted to) with Wanted and Terminator Salvation.
It's a shame that developers can't put a little more effort into making these licensed games feel like a good, honest effort. It's not that we can't have good Astro Boy-related titles, as the aforementioned Treasure-developed GBA game proved a few years ago. To a certain degree, Astro Boy tries to capture a little of what made Omega Factor work so well; it has the full arsenal of Astro's weapons, along with a 2-D side-scrolling action setup using 3-D models instead of anything sprite-based. It's not the best-looking title out there with this art choice. The backgrounds are detailed, but the game has a heavy blue hue, too many dark colors and bland environments that take away from the coolness of having a ton of robot enemies and bosses populating your game.
Basically, I feel like Astro Boy could have been much better than it is, and it would have only taken a few minor gameplay changes. As the game begins, Astro Boy gets exiled from the main city and is cast down with the rest of the robot junk that comprises the surface of the planet. Here, he runs into a small group of kids that he ends up saving from two guys known as the Scorpion Brothers, and Astro Boy's adventure kicks off. The game has one CGI cut scene in the beginning that looks like it was probably ripped out of the film, but the rest of the title is populated with in-game cutscenes that are pretty awful. The voice actors from the film do the voices here, which are OK, but there are some odd loading issues with the UMD so that sometimes, the characters mouths would move far in advance of the voices. You can hear the noticeable loading noise from the UMD when this happens, and it looks really awkward to watch, not to mention how it sounds. Most of the cut scene work features talking heads and still bodies, which doesn't help matters any.
The gameplay is split into two modes: side-scrolling action and a variation on standard shoot-'em-ups. Something like Gradius or R-Type would fit the bill in comparison, but neither mode is particularly fun to play. The side-scrolling action bits give Astro Boy a main attack of punching, plus the ability to use two special attacks mapped to the top right and left buttons on the PSP. You can also hold up on the d-pad and press attack to unleash his finger beam attack; then you'll need to press Triangle to refill your health, provided your special attack meter has some charge remaining. Every time you hit an enemy, he'll discharge little red bits of energy that Astro Boy automatically collects to refill his special meter, so you can pretty much get through every stage without losing a life, since it's easy enough to constantly refill your health. Even if you die, the game has a generous checkpoint system and unlimited lives, so it's not much of a hindrance.
The biggest issue with the side-scrolling gameplay comes from Astro Boy's inability to move and punch at the same time. His punch attack has a pretty limited range; you need to be right up on an enemy to hit them, and usually enemies will be more than happy to smack you back, so it becomes really aggravating to stand still and punch instead of being able to actively dodge attacks, if necessary. There are some weird issues with jumping as well, like doing wall jumps, where you need to wait for the animation of Astro, who's skidding down a wall surface before you can jump again, or else the wall jump won't register. It's this odd half-second delay that feels unnatural in comparison to any other 2-D game I've played that uses the same mechanic. Finally, the other weapons, like the Finger Beams, feel really underpowered in comparison to Astro's core punch attack, to the point of being useless. As you progress in the game, you'll find power-ups to increase the potency of these attacks, but they still feel hardly adequate as a primary form of attack.
The shoot-'em-up section of gameplay fares a bit better, mostly because the screen auto-scrolls with Astro flying around, and you can constantly tap the attack button to get a continuous fire effect going on, instead of burst fire. Still, it feels odd in the sense that most enemies take a lot of damage before being destroyed, and they don't tend to stay on the screen long enough to blow them up. It's pretty easy but feels "off" in a sense compared to other shoot-'em-up titles. It's certainly the best mode of the two available, but it's not nearly polished enough to get too excited about checking it out. Part of me thinks that Astro Boy would have been better off if they had stuck with this mode and put more effort into fully realizing it, instead of splitting the gameplay between the two. At least the clunky punch mechanic is gone here, so it's full-on Finger Beams for your basic attack.
One thing worth noting: If you've been thinking about picking this up, the game doesn't have co-op play. This is worth noting because the box says that it actually does have it. Apparently this is a carryover in box art from the Wii and PS2 versions of the game, but it seems like a pretty big error to make if someone were looking for a co-op PSP title.
Altogether, Astro Boy: The Video Game is a pretty disappointing tie-in for the film, and it certainly doesn't hold a candle to the GBA Omega Factor title. Astro Boy gets the bullet points right with the side-scrolling action stuff, but the core mechanics are a mess, and combat is awful. The presentation is also a little ugly, with some issues during the cut scenes that make the story a little bit of a chore to bother with. If you're a fan of the character, or even the new film, I don't think this game is going to be worth your time. The same goes for side-scrolling fans looking for something new to sink their teeth into. Astro Boy isn't a particularly well-made title, and it's certainly not worth picking up.
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